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Dix case a test of new laws

These were not the domestic terrorists that experts warned against after the Sept. 11 attacks seven years ago. But the five men convicted Monday of plotting a jihad-inspired attack on Fort Dix are, for now, the archetype of homegrown terrorists being tracked by federal law enforcement agents.

These were not the domestic terrorists that experts warned against after the Sept. 11 attacks seven years ago.

But the five men convicted Monday of plotting a jihad-inspired attack on Fort Dix are, for now, the archetype of homegrown terrorists being tracked by federal law enforcement agents.

The investigation that resulted in their convictions was a template, experts say, for the Justice Department's counterterrorism strategy, and underscored the fundamental question that law enforcement wrestles with in each case: How and when should authorities respond to a perceived security threat?

For prosecutors and FBI agents who worked the case, the investigation was one battle in a war that began in earnest after Sept. 11, 2001, and that continues today in a shadowy world of clashing cultures, religions and languages.

It is a war in which the weapons are wiretaps, hidden cameras, and foreign-born informants often motivated by self-interest and cash - and victory may be simply averting what might have been.

To law enforcement officials, the five defendants, who were born abroad but raised in Cherry Hill, were homegrown terrorists willing to die for distorted Islamic beliefs built around violent martyrdom, ruthless beheadings, and bloody intolerance of non-believers.

"The word should go out to any other would-be terrorists of the homegrown variety that the United States will find you, infiltrate your group, prosecute you, and send you to a federal prison for a very long time," acting U.S. Attorney Ralph J. Marra Jr. said in a statement released after the convictions.

The defendants, who range in age from 23 to 30, all face potential life sentences.

"These guys had a plan and they had weapons," said Karen Greenberg, editor of the Terrorist Trial Report Card, a study conducted by the Center on Law and Security at New York University Law School.

That, she said, made the Fort Dix conspiracy a more serious threat than some domestic terrorism cases the Justice Department has brought over the last seven years.

In none of the cases, however, have the alleged conspirators fit the prototype that terrorism experts warned about as new antiterrorism laws were drafted after 9/11, said Greenberg, executive director of the center.

That legislation was aimed at organizations linked to foreign-terrorist groups that, experts believed, would try to insinuate sleeper cells into the United States. Members of the cells would embed themselves in a community and lead seemingly normal lives while plotting attacks on civilians and civilian targets.

"This is not what we expected the face of domestic terrorism to look like," Greenberg said of the Fort Dix defendants and the conspiracy they took part in.

Though prosecutors contended that the defendants were influenced by al-Qaeda and Osama bin Ladin, they said the former classmates at Cherry Hill High School West had no ties to a foreign organization.

The case was an example of the FBI's preventive-arrests counterterrorism strategy, in which investigators disrupt a plot by taking conspirators into custody before it goes into motion.

"One of the big issues is, when should the government intervene?" said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. The earlier authorities act, "the more difficult it is for them to prove the case."

Sometimes, the NYU study noted, "suspects are quite a ways from achieving operational capacity," and occasionally, "the FBI skirts a close line between preventive arrests and entrapment."

The argument of defense attorneys in the Fort Dix trial was that the FBI, through its paid informants, crossed that line.

To defense attorneys and relatives of the five men, the case was distorted justice, a prosecution built around the testimony of two paid FBI informants who they say manipulated the much younger defendants into a conspiracy they had no intention of carrying out.

The case also raised questions about whether Muslims can expect to be treated equally under the law in post-9/11 America and whether dissent or political rant will be construed as conspiracy.

Michael Riley, attorney for defendant Shain Duka, compared the situation for Muslims to that of another ethnic group that faced indiscriminate prejudice.

It's a time not unlike the United States after the start of World War II, he said, comparing the status of Muslims to that of "Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor."

The Fort Dix defendants became suspects in January 2006 after a clerk at a Circuit City store alerted police to a video that customers had asked him to copy.

The video included scenes from a firing range where men were practicing shooting, waving their weapons, and shouting for jihad.

That tape, which the defendants made during a trip to the Poconos, launched the investigation that ended with this week's verdict.

The five - Mohamad Shnewer, 23; Serdar Tatar, 25; and brothers Dritan, 30; Shain, 27; and Eljvir Duka, 25 - were convicted of conspiring to kill U.S. military personnel at Fort Dix but acquitted of attempted-murder charges.

All but Tatar were also found guilty of weapons offenses. They will be sentenced in April.

The split verdict appeared to indicate that the jurors, who deliberated for 51/2 days, believed that the defendants plotted to attack the base but had not taken substantive steps to kill anyone.

Legal experts said the attempted-murder charge, which was added in a superceding indictment months after the defendants were arrested and charged, gave the prosecution leverage.

Dan Filler, senior associate dean at the Drexel University Earle Mack School of Law, called the new charge a calculated move by prosecutors, who anticipated that it would allow the jury to reach a compromise on a verdict.

"You add that so if you get the acquittal on the attempted murder, you still get the big sentencing exposure" with the conspiracy charge, he said.

"That's part of the strategy of any prosecutor: charge up to the max that you can comfortably, ethically, put in an indictment."

With their split verdict, jurors may have tried to "give something back to the defendants," he said. If the jury had been given just the conspiracy charge to consider, that might have benefited the less-culpable defendants, particularly Tatar.

"You might have seen him get an acquittal," Filler said.

The jurors likely did not know that both the attempted-murder and conspiracy counts carried life sentences, so acquitting on one charge did little for the defendants, he said.

"If they'd gone on the conspiracy charge alone, it would have been all or nothing," added Tobias.

In voting to convict on the conspiracy count, the jury accepted the prosecution contention, reiterated by Marra after the verdicts were announced, that "these men planned, trained, and ceaselessly talked unambiguously about their intention to ambush and kill U.S. soldiers."

The conversations secretly taped by the informants, a map of Fort Dix supplied by Tatar, and the fact that Dritan and Shain Duka were arrested as they tried to buy military assault rifles from one of the informants underscored that point.

The plot, however ill-conceived - the defendants hoped to use a pizza-delivery pass to get onto the base - was nevertheless a conspiracy, the jury found.

"Guys who have very simple weapons and a very simple plan can cause a lot of damage," said an FBI terrorism expert who was the last government witness called in the eight-week trial.

Citing the recent terrorist attack in Mumbai, which occurred days before the jury began deliberations, Evan Kohlmann told the anonymously chosen panel, "You don't have to be very sophisticated to kill people."